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An Equine Perspective: Field Surgery on Thor

Here at Strand Vets we don’t just care for dogs, cats and other pets – we also have a highly qualified equine team! And they’re not just catering to children’s ponies and competition horses either… So for this article, we thought you might find it interesting to see what our horse vets get up to.

Our team were recently called out to visit Thor, a 6 year old Welsh Cob. Thor works for the Douglas Bay Horse Tramway, as a tram horse. The tram horses are owned by the Isle of Man Government, and have an average working life of 15 years, after which they go into retirement at the Home of Rest for Old Horses in Douglas.

However, sadly for Thor, he was a little bit too keen on the mares, and the decision was taken that he needed to be castrated, to help him keep his mind on the job. Now, while the operation is pretty much the same as any other boys we see – dog, cat or rabbit – surgery in horses is a bit more complicated. They’re so big they are at increased risk under anaesthetic, and waking up after the anaesthetic can be particularly difficult.

So, following best practice for Thor’s safety, we use a whole surgical team, even for such a routine operation. On duty were vets Francesca and Ciara – you almost always need two vets for safe equine surgery – as well as one of our trained and qualified nurses, and some very helpful members of the Tram Horse team.

And of course, a horse operating theatre is built on a different scale to that needed for dogs and cats, so we generally prefer to perform routine operations like this outside in a clean field. That meant we had to pack everything we needed into the van.

And once there, get everything set up neatly and aseptically, so we could access all the drugs and equipment, without breaking sterility.

First, Thor was given a sedative to make him sleepy, and then he was given an general anaesthetic so he was completely asleep. This is one of the riskiest parts of the procedure, but our vets handled it smoothly, gently guiding him down to lie on the clean grass as he fell asleep.

Then, we put a cloth over his eyes and muffled his ears to help prevent him from waking up unexpectedly, and vet Francesca checked his depth and the anaesthetic.

Once she was happy, Ciara injected local anaesthetic into the operation site, carefully numbing the skin and both testicles.

And then, while members of the team held his back leg up, she scrubbed the area to make it sterile, so she wouldn’t introduce any infection.

Of course, just cleaning Thor’s skin isn’t enough, she needed to make sure she was sterile too, so she conducted a full field scrub.

Meanwhile, Francesca (as today’s equine anaesthetist) was constantly monitoring the anaesthetic during the whole thing and every now and then getting one of us to stretch out the leg so that it doesn’t go ‘dead’.

You may notice that she’s leaning on his neck – this is so if he does “come light”, it helps stop him from regaining balance if he did wake up. Of course, in reality he could throw her off easily if he tried but with the pressure there she would feel any changes fast and give him an anaesthetic top up well before he was awake or aware.

The next step is to make sure that all the kit is ready for use.

And then, once everything’s in place an Francesca was happy, Ciara was able to start the procedure. The nurse passes her the equipment she needs as she needs it, and using a scalpel blade, she cuts through the numb skin, and pulls out each testicle in turn.

In a younger colt (foal or “teenage” male horse), the blood vessels can simply be crushed and the testicle removed, but in a horse of Thor’s age, it’s better to carefully tie off the vessels using surgical suture material before removing the testicle.

After the procedure, Thor is allowed to wake up naturally. We don’t usually use anaesthetic antidotes in case of emergency, because we want him to very gradually come round, so he doesn’t try to get up while he’s still too wobbly.

Thor was definitely a bit wobbly, so while Francesca, Ciara and the team supported his front end, the nurse gave him a helping hand at the rear.

As you see, she’s pulling on the tail to try to give him some extra balance to help him find his feet. It does look a little dangerous, but because he’s so unsteady on his feet, he wouldn’t be able to balance well enough to try and kick her even if he wanted to (which he really didn’t!). The biggest danger actually was that he’d stand on one of their feet by accident!

Thor made a great recovery, and was soon standing comfortably on his own. With no complications after surgery, thanks to our great team, he’ll be back on the Trams in no time – much better able to keep his mind on his passengers!

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